Going Green into the black

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With the May 2011 election results, the Green Party reached a new level of legitimacy; with the election of its leader, Elizabeth May, it had won its first seat in the House of Commons.

“I stand here today as the first elected Green Member of Parliament in Canadian history,” May told a cheering crowd. She said she must now prove that a single MP can make a difference on the Hill. “Today we proved that Canadians want change in politics.”

The victory was the culmination of 28 years of advocating a multi-issue political platform that prioritizes environmental stewardship. May, the leader since 2006, has combined environmental activism and politics since her early 20s, having been the Associate General Counsel to the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and a political advisor for the Progressive Conservative party, and member of numerous social and environmental boards.

The election of the Green Party into the House of Commons was the first step, says May, in gaining more attention for what she describes as “the single biggest threat to the survival of civilization”, climate change. May believes that this issue is highly overlooked by the current administration and judging from the election results, by the population as well.

May argues that it should not be seen as a singular issue but rather one that has a broad impact, including on the economy; the clean energy and environmental goods market is estimated to be worth $6.5 trillion and is being actively pursued by major and emerging economies, including the U.S., the European Union, China, and India.

In light of this, perhaps the Green Party’s biggest challenge is in aligning better environmental practises with smarter economics, changing the perception or reality that it costs money to reduce one’s impact on the environment.

To do this, May looks to Europe, where other Green Parties are getting represented on the national level. The United Kingdom elected their federal Green Party leader Caroline Lucas for the first time under a similar “first-past-the-post” system as Canada in 2010 in the riding of Brighton-Pavilion. Australia elected its first Green Member of Parliament to its Lower House in 2010, with the party garnering 13 per cent of the Senate vote, and Greens are found in national parliaments from New Zealand to Germany to Columbia. And in Germany, the Green Party has formed a state government, making it the first country in the world with a Green Premier.

To achieve this goal, May is determined to make her presence felt in the House of Commons. Her first point of order, she tells CBJ, is to “improve civility in the House of Commons.”

“Decorum began to disintegrate during the filibuster,” May says, in reference to gridlock surrounding the back-to-work legislation for Canada Post employees.

“I have spoken to the Speaker of the House and the other house leaders and expressed a strong desire that we find a way to keep decorum in the House from descending to the abysmal abusive situation that existed right before the election.”

May says she is taking a “zero tolerance for heckling” policy. “I think that can make a difference.”

But do not think that May’s main concerns are manner and etiquette. “I also think this is the best way to get action a number of the issues.

“I am determined to find a way to change the government position on climate. That is a major goal I have. I think our best bet is…to persuade the government through scientific briefings and to work on independent MPs. Perhaps with the four-year mandate there is an opportunity for the Conservative caucus to start exerting itself and changing the Canadian position.”

May turns to social media to “de-mystify and share” what goes on in Parliament Hill in a way that engages more Canadians to be interested. “That would be a really great achievement for the first four years,” she says.

While the Conservative government is heavy on fiscal policies, it is less so on environmental policies, creating the idea that the two ideas are mutually independent. Not so, says May, who sees a distinct intersection between profit and environmental stewardship.

“It can be done in ways that enhance the economy,” May says. “Look at the economics. Sweden imposed a carbon tax and reduced its emission but more than 25 per cent while at the same time increasing economic activity by I think as much as 40 per cent. Norway imposed carbon pricing, dramatic Greenhouse Gas reductions while at the same time increased its GDP. So there is no conflict between climate action and economic growth and sustainability.”

May further makes the case that carbon pricing will in fact help the Canadian economy. “It’s not the case that action on climate will hurt our economy. On the contrary,” she says, referencing a conversation she had with former Senior Economist for the World Bank, Sir Nicholas Stern, in which she reiterated a comment made by Stephen Harper, who said raising our targets for Greenhouse Gas reductions to the same level as the European Union would cost millions of jobs.

“And his response, which I can quote verbatim, was ‘If Canada stays dirty, you will be losing investment, you will be losing competitiveness, you will be losing jobs and ultimately you will be exposed to trade sanctions from other countries around the world that are taking action.’”

“I would argue that his position of refusing to keep up with other industrialized countries will hurt our economy and quite severely and quite soon.”

While not everyone is able to go to the House of Commons to enact change, there are ways that entrepreneurs and businesses can have less of an impact on the environment that will not affect profit.

“One of the first things to do is to do an energy audit on your own operations,” May says.

If one looks to major companies around the world who have already taken steps to reduce their impact on the environment and to reduce waste like IBM, Royal Dutch, Shell, 3M, Husky Energy, Interface Flor, on so on, you will find quickly that everything they did for the environment improved their bottom line, made them more money than ever by reducing waste.

Ray Anderson, Chairman at Interface Flor, global leader in carpet tile manufacturing, announced the company’s goal of zero environmental impact by 2020.

“This we know: openness, honesty, and collaboration are key to environmental progress—not only for Interface but for any business. We are calling on our fellow industrialists everywhere to make the same commitment to transparency and to the business model: ‘doing well by doing good,’ a better way to a ‘bigger, more honest and authentic profit.”

Authentic profit—that is what May insists will not be lost in the search of better environmental practices. “It is unreasonable to ask small- and medium-sized businesses to take on sacrifice for something called the environment, that is not the job of business.

The job of business is to make profit; you are responsible to your shareholders and investors to make a profit. So you want to look hard at where the opportunities are to save money long term. The waste of paper, energy, electricity, gas, represents lost profit.

“If we can get corporations…to be putting pressure on the government to assuage that upfront investment because although you make more money long term, that up front invest, that first cost barrier to bring in a more energy efficient boiler, or to retrofit or insulate, that first cost barrier is a hurdle. And if the company that does nothing gets rewarded and the company that takes action has a short-term burden until they see profits increase then the government itself is a barrier to corporate profit because it makes it that much harder for corporations to avoid waste.”

May and the Green Party have four years align the idea that Canada’s environmental policies can be an significant driver of resource efficiency, profit, and global competitiveness during this term. If they can achieve this, then May should count it as a success. 

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